How to Integrate Cultural Awareness and Understanding into English Language Teaching

How to Integrate Cultural Awareness and
Understanding into English Language Teaching
Rosukhon Swatevacharkul, Ph.D. 1
Culture is a crucial concept in language teaching; therefore, culture and language cannot be separated
from each other. This paper therefore aims to explore the concept of culture and the relationship between
language and culture. Cultural awareness, which is necessary for effective language learning, is also
discussed. Integration of cultural awareness and understanding into English language teaching is explored
in detail, followed by a brief discussion about cultural assessment.
Keywords: Assessment, Awareness, Culture, Integration, Language
Culture is defined differently by many scholars.
Brown [1] defines culture as a way of life. People exist,
think, feel, and relate to others within the context of
culture. "It is the 'glue' that binds a group of people
together" (p.163). In addition, culture can be defined
as "the ideas, customs, skills, arts, and tools that
characterise a given group of people in a given period
of time" (p.177). According to Seelye [2], culture is
"the systemic, rather arbitrary, more or less coherent,
group-invented, and group-shared creed from the past
that defines the shape of 'reality', and assigns the sense
and worth of things…" (p.23). In terms of reality,
Brown [3] argues that it is likely that we perceive
"reality" within our own cultural context; therefore,
we tend to believe that our "reality" is the correct
Based on these definitions, culture clearly
involves both behaviour and perceptions. In fact,
Seelye [4] states that in a broad concept, culture
involves all aspects of human life.
Language and Culture
According to Kumaravadivelu [5], language is in
every aspect of human experience, and it creates and
reflectively represents that experience. It is not
possible to imagine human life without language. As
supported by Mitchell and Myles [6], language and
culture have an interdependent relationship. "Language
and culture are not separate, but are acquired together,
with each providing support for the development of
the other" (p. 235).
However, in relation to language teaching,
Bennett [7] points out that for many students and
some teachers, language is viewed as a tool for
communication. It is a method that is used by human
to indicate the objects and ideas. Therefore, language
is just a set of words with rules. Foreign or second
language learning is then a process of getting the same
meaning by substituting words and rules. Learning or
thinking about language learning in this way causes
learners to become a "fluent fool", someone who
speaks a foreign language well but does not
understand social or philosophical issues of that
language. These people may encounter a problem
when they are in a social situation that they are not
able to understand an event well enough to avoid any
unpleasant behaviour. In addition, these people
may have a negative attitude towards the native
speakers of a particular language because they lack
English Language Instructor, Language Institute, Dhurakij Pundit University.
Telephone number 0-2954-7300-29, E-mail address: [email protected]
50 l กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552
the understanding of the culture of the native
speakers. Bennett therefore strongly suggests that it
is necessary to understand more deeply and completely
the cultural contents and dimensions of the language
in order not to be a fluent fool. Bennett argues that
language is not only a communication tool, but it also
guides us how to understand concepts and how we
experience reality.
It can be said that if we do not understand other
people's culture well enough, our communication with
them may be unsuccessful. This leads to a notion
of language -- a two-edged sword -- in the view of
Fantini [8]. Language includes only people who share
the system while others who do not are excluded.
In other words, language -- words or sentences
expressed -- can be understood only by people who
belong to the same group or culture. Those who are
not in the same culture cannot understand that
Language is culturally filtered and originated [2];
culture and thoughts can be conveyed by a language.
Therefore, different languages reflect different
cultures. The importance of understanding the
culture of other people is reinforced for successful
communication. The concept of 'intercultural
competence' [8] emerges as a result.
In foreign language learning, apart from an ability
to use a language for successful communication as
per the concept of "communication competence", it is
imperative for learners to possess "intercultural
competence". This is the case particularly for the
English language, which is used for communication
across cultures [8]. People need to know, be aware
of, and understand cultures of other people. They at
least need to recognise differences among cultures or
in a better case can compare them with their own
cultures. Normally, people who always live in their
own culture and only speak their own native language
do not realise that their behaviour is culturally-induced
and are not aware of their own culture value. This is
because they never have a chance to know about other
people's cultures in order to recognise any differences.
This explanation is in line with the frequent quote
among interculturalists: "If you want to know about
water, don't ask a goldfish" (p.13) [8]. A goldfish has
never experienced living in a wide river.
Cultural Awareness and Understanding
In the last decade, the concept of culture has
become very popular and important in language
teaching [9] and second language teaching [3] because
culture is a part of a language, and language is a part
of a culture. They cannot be separated [3]. Learning
a language means learning a culture. As pointed out
by Seelye [4], it is necessary to understand the way of
life or culture of foreign people in order to survive in
the world full of conflicting ideas and value systems,
which excludes those with different ideas. However,
to enter into another culture, we need to know the
language of that culture. It can be said that language
acts as a gateway to culture. Language and culture
are therefore interrelated.
Maley [9] points out that to promote language
learning is to raise cultural awareness. Therefore,
it is worthwhile exploring the definitions of cultural
awareness. According to Byram et al. [10], the
concept of cultural awareness is regarded as the key
innovation of the national curriculum in England and
Wales. The term "cultural awareness" is defined as
"the promotion of the understanding of and respect
for other cultures (…) one of the most important aims
of modern language studies" (p.36) [11] cited in Byram
et al., (p. 75) [10]. In fact, cultural awareness signifies
The term "cultural awareness" is also described
by Tomalin and Stempleski [12] as "sensitivity to the
impact of culturally-induced behaviour on language
use and communication" (p. 5). There are three
qualities concerning cultural awareness suggested by
Tomalin and Stempleski, that is,
กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552 l 51
1. Awareness of our behaviour influenced by our
2. Awareness of the others' behaviour influenced
by their own cultures.
3. Ability to explain our own cultural point of
It is clear that when we talk about cultural
awareness, we do not mean only our culture, but also
other people's culture. A lack of cultural awareness
which is essential to language learning will definitely
cause miscommunication. Therefore, cultural
awareness raising is crucial because it helps promote
language learning and communication success. This
clearly reflects the relationship between language and
cultural awareness, which can be concretely illustrated
and concluded by this quote:
A growing awareness of the culture of the people
who speak the language of study is intrinsic to the
learning of it …Without the cultural dimension,
successful communication is often difficult. …
Comparison between the learner's own way of life and
that of the other language community are an essential
means to better understanding of both (p.37) [11] cited
in Byram et al. (p.75) [10].
Integration of Cultural Awareness and Understanding into English Language Teaching
Many scholars in the field of culture teaching
support a diverse range of how to integrate culture
into English language teaching or how to teach
Lafayette [13], cited in Hadley [14], suggests that
a simple, direct approach that makes use of existing
content and practice be required in the teaching
of culture. Students should acquire facts or basic
information necessary for the comprehension of most
cultural concepts. He groups 13 goal statements into
five categories to suggest what students should know:
1) knowledge of formal or "high" culture such as
major geographical monuments, historical events,
52 l กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552
institutions and arts; 2) knowledge of everyday
well-known culture; 3) affective objectives such as
values of different people and societies; 4)
multicultural objectives plus the understandings of the
culture of people living in the United States and
non-European people who speak English around the
world; and 5) process objectives such as evaluation of
cultural statement validity.
Seelye [2] points out that a teacher of English
to speakers of other languages (ESOL) or a foreign
language teacher needs to identify instructional
goals of the task that aims to develop student skills
in the cultural contexts to achieve intercultural
communicative competence. Seelye provides six
examples of the instructional goals as follows:
Goal 1-- Interest
Students exhibit curiosity about another culture
and empathy towards members of that culture.
Goal 2 -- Who
Students recognise that role expectations and other
social factors such as age, sex, social class, religion,
ethnicity, and place of residence have an effect on
people's behaviour and the way they speak.
Goal 3 -- What
Students realise that successful communication
is resulted from an understanding of images
conditioned by the cultures of those people when they
think, act and react to people or events around them.
Goal 4 -- Where and When
Students recognise that people's behaviour is
directed by the situational factors in crucial ways.
Goal 5 -- Why
Students understand that people employ choices
of actions allowed in their society to act the way they
do to fulfill their physical and psychological needs.
Their need for satisfaction is supported by their
cultural patterns.
Goal 6 -- Exploration
Students can assess a generalisation about a
particular culture in terms of supporting evidence,
and possess the skills necessary to locate and organise
information regarding culture from various sources.
In brief, these goals assist the students to develop
interest in who in a given culture did what, where and
when, and why. It is suggested that these goals be
a part of any language programmes that have an
objective to enhance intercultural communication.
Tomalin and Stempleski [12] strongly recommend that
these goals should be considered when a lesson
plan is prepared, and integrated into these practical
teaching principles:
1. Use the language taught as a means to access
the culture.
2. Incorporate the study of cultural behaviour in
each lesson.
3. Aim that students achieve socio-economic
competence which they feel is needed.
4. Aim that students of all levels understand
cross-cultural dimensions: being aware of their
own culture and the English language culture.
5. Realise that behaviour cannot be changed
due to a teaching of culture, but only the
awareness and tolerance of the cultural
influences have an effect on everyone's
The fifth principle is a practically good justification
of the importance of cultural awareness raising.
However, Ryffel [15] warns that incorporating culture
learning activities for language education programmes
does not only mean adding such activities in a lesson
plan. It is necessary to take two important things into
account, i.e., structure and strategies. First, activities
must be carefully structured. Activities do not mean
only fun or meaningless games. Rather, they need
to realise emotional reaction of both students and
teachers. Meaningful learning must occur from the
activities. Second, activities must be adapted by
applying culturally sensitive strategies, which can help
reduce discomfort and anxiety of the students. Safe
learning environment must be established to comfort
the students. This affective side of culture instruction
is supported by Brown [3] who states that it is essential
that the teachers be sensitive to the emotional aspect
of the students when teaching a foreign or "alien"
language. The teachers need to use techniques that
promote cultural awareness and understanding.
According to Brown [3], role-play can be used to help
students feel more comfortable with cultural problems.
Besides a promotion of oral communication, role-play
promotes cross-cultural dialogues among students.
Role-play can also be employed effectively with
students of any proficiency level [14].
However, since culture is a sensitive issue, Ryffel
[15] points out that there are two major concerns
about learning activities that are culturally sensitive,
i.e., choices of the activities, and the adaptation and
use of the activities. It is noted that the adaptation of
the activities has already been touched upon to some
extent earlier. However, it is explored more in detail:
1. Choices of activities
When choosing the activities, the teacher should
consider the following:
Logistics: time constraints, space limitations
and materials.
Aims and nature: objectives of the topic,
risk level and balance with other kinds of
Students: language level, cultural adjustment
stage, preferred learning styles, and classroom
Teachers: teacher-student relationship, level of
comfort with culture-learning activities and
2. Adaptation and use of activities
After the selection of the culture activities, consideration of how to adapt and use them will be the
next step. The following are the criteria:
Instruction: Be clear and consistent, use clear
language and give examples or models, check
whether students understand the directions.
กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552 l 53
Pacing: Reduce anxiety by having set routines,
do the activity slowly and step-by-step.
Teacher participation or intervention: Participate
in the activity and help students as deemed
necessary; however, this should be done in a
balanced manner. Be patient with students'
Grouping: Be careful when assigning students
into groups. In some cultures, people with
different hierarchical levels do not work
together. Let them organise their groups in
case of uncertainty. This is a particularly
effective guideline for teaching adult learners.
Student participation: Some activities such as
role-play and simulations contain high degrees
of risk because of uncertainty. Solution can
be obtained by having a small group take
responsibility for the role or task rather than
an individual student.
Learning preferences: Use a variety of tasks
to serve all learning styles of different students.
Have them work alone or in group.
Discussion: Use open-ended questions, not
yes-no questions to promote discussion except
with low proficiency level students.
Student as information source: Value students'
ideas and have them realise that by writing their
ideas on board, copying and distributing them
to the class.
Teacher as information source: Be willing to
take a more traditional role of teacher as a
source of information at the beginning by
giving short lectures, guidance and input;
however, gradually reduce this type of role
over time.
Some strategies for teaching culture are also given
by Hadley [14] for non-native speakers of the target
language, which can be applied for non-native English
54 l กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552
The lecture: It is the most common and
effective technique if the teacher is careful to
deliver a short lecture; motivate students with
visuals, realia and others related to personal
experience; emphasise some specific aspects
of cultural experience, allow students to take
notes; and use follow-up techniques in case of
the use of English to ask questions, practise
new vocabulary, or structure.
Native informants: The classroom teacher can
use native informants as a valuable resource
both for current information about English and
language models.
Audiotaped interviews: Informal interview
with a native speaker can provide information
about the English culture. Teachers can
interview native speakers in their community
and record informal conversation on topics
relevant to the cultural course materials. It is
suggested that language used should be at the
appropriate level of the students.
Videotaped interviews/Observational dialogues:
Videotaped interviews and role-plays in different
situations are very effective for teaching culture
because it gives natural, authentic language
exchanges. Non-verbal information can be
provided as well. From the videotaped
interviews, students can learn language
and gesture conventionally used in various
situations. Other important cultural features
can be learned as well such as appropriate
social distance, eye contact, and others.
Videotapes showing "survival situation", such
as oral interviews, which is good for listening
comprehension and culture learning, are
practically useful for beginning and intermediate
language classes.
Reading and realia for cross-cultural understanding: Usually students bring with them
their existing cultural knowledge and experi-
ence from their native language [16] or the
technical term "cultural schemata" [14].
When reading, students will try to interpret the
texts by using their native-language cultural
schemata which can cause danger for their
understanding of the texts if their cultural
schemata are different from those presented
in English texts. Therefore, to solve this
problem, Byrnes [17], cited in Hadley [14],
suggests that firstly, teachers use the English
texts about the English culture that are not
too much different from the reality of the
students' native language or their own cultural
experiences. Secondly, as a starting point,
students may learn from English texts about
some aspects of their own native culture, with
which they are familiar.
In addition, regarding topic or theme, Byrnes
suggests: 1) reading about an aspect of students' own
culture in their language; 2) reading about the same
thing as suggested in item 1, but this time in English
and from the perspective of the English culture; 3)
reading about the same theme or topic in the English
culture and in the students' native language; 4)
reading about the English culture in English. By
reading different texts on the same topic but from
different cultural perspectives, students can start to
understand how culture may be different in two
contexts and how attitudes may differ.
Hadley [14] also recommends some common
teaching techniques to help students understand
behaviour that is culturally conditioned. Students
should be able to compare and contrast the behaviour
in their home and English cultures. The activities are
as follows:
Culture capsule: It is a short description of one
or two paragraphs long. It shows at least one
difference between the native culture and
English. Culture capsules can be written by
teachers or students or found from commercial
Culture cluster: It consists of about three
culture capsules that develop related topics and
one half an hour simulation that integrates the
information in the capsules and dramatises it
through a skit or situational role-play.
Decreasing stereotypic perceptions: Stereotypes
are very dangerous if they cause barriers to
understanding and a development of empathy.
It is unfair if the cultural generalisation is based
on only the behaviour of one person from that
culture. Therefore, students should be helped
to understand the unfair generalisations about
people from other cultures. There is a diverse
range of activities for this purpose. One
interesting example is using advertisements.
Mantle-Bromley [18] cited in Hadley [14],
suggests that students can make a discussion
on how well or poorly the advertisements
represent people of the culture, and then try to
understand what causes stereotypes, how they
exist, and why it is difficult to get rid of them.
Using proverbs: According to Richmond [19]
cited in Hadley [14], proverbs can give
crucial insights about the way of life of people.
Proverbs are therefore appropriate for teaching
culture; however, it is recommended that
proficiency levels should be judged. Moreover,
the categorisation of the proverbs in terms of
similar concepts in the students' native
language should be done so that students can
relate to them accurately.
Humour as a component of culture: Humour
can be used to explore cross-cultural differences
although it is difficult to understand a foreign
culture's humour. Morain [20], cited in Hadley
[14], suggests several ways to integrate humour
into the foreign language instruction. Teachers
กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552 l 55
should try to 1) provide students with authentic
examples of cartoons, jokes, puns, and other
forms of humour; 2) teach students about the
conventions of humour in English; 3) help
students understand the cartoon scripts or
jokes; and 4) provide opportunities for students
to share humour from the English culture with
one another.
There is one more resource for cultural teaching
i.e. the Internet. Hadley [14] states that without doubt
technology can strongly affect language teaching both
now and in the future since it provides texts, images,
and sounds. This kind of resource can enhance the
integration of language and culture. The Internet
provides culturally authentic information, which
reduces the burden of the teacher as the authority
source of information. However, the teacher needs to
determine whether the information on the Internet is
appropriate for students' learning.
So far, we can see that there are many ways to
incorporate cultural awareness into English language
teaching. However, as pointed out earlier, cultural
awareness should not be raised only to have students
understand the cultures of the target languages or the
English language only. Students need to be aware of
their own cultures as well. This concept can be
regarded as a cultural paradigm shift, which is due to
the fact that the role of English has been changed. At
present, English is an international language (EIL),
which signifies that English does not exclusively
belong to the English native speakers. This is the
reason why we have the notions like "Englishes" or
"world Englishes" [21] [22]. Due to the new role of
EIL, some crucial implications for teaching culture
are suggested by McKay [23] as follows:
1. The content of EIL materials for teaching
culture should not be limited to native English-speaking
cultures. The role of EIL is to enable learners to use
English to express their local culture to the world;
56 l กรกฎาคม-ธันวาคม 2552
therefore, the cultural materials should provide
information and vocabulary on local cultures.
2. Teaching methodologies need to realise local
expectations concerning the role of teacher and learner.
Appropriate teaching methods are not necessary to be
the same as those applied in the English native-speaking
cultures; namely Communicative Language Teaching
(CLT). Instead, appropriate teaching methods are
those that are viewed appropriate in the local context.
3. The ideal teachers are not necessarily the
English native-speakers. Due to the international
status of English, English has become "denationalised";
consequently, local teachers who are bilingual of both
English and the native language should be suitable
for teaching the culture. They are familiar with their
local culture, which is a strength of the bilingual
teacher besides English ability.
It can be said that there are many culture activities
that can be integrated into English language teaching.
However, there are some points worth mentioning.
Seelye [4] maintains that whatever can be taught in
the target language, in our case English, should be
taught in the target language. Moreover, it is not
necessary for the activities carried out in English to
be done in class. Instead, they can be completed
outside of class via project or homework assignments.
Above all, the activities should not be performed by
ignoring cultural skill development which is extremely
vital in teaching culture. Seelye also insists on the
importance of cross-cultural communication and
understanding. Students need to effectively acquire
Assessment of Culture Learning
In language instruction, assessment is one important
aspect involved in the instruction process. Similarly,
assessment is crucial to cultural learning. Teachers
need to know whether students learn something.
However, assessing cultural learning is given least
attention [10]. This part therefore aims to explore this
aspect of cultural learning.
Byram et al. [10] propose three areas of assessment,
that is, knowledge, attitude, and behaviour.
Knowledge: It is necessary to assess cultural
factual knowledge possessed by students
since they need some factual knowledge to
communicate interculturally. As pointed out
earlier, Lafayette [13], cited in Hadley [14],
acknowledges the importance of "facts". The
factual knowledge to be assessed will be
selected as per the criteria set [10].
Attitude: The purpose of cultural study is to
encourage positive attitudes of students
towards both language learning and people
from other countries and communities. Seelye
[2] suggests that the easiest way to assess
students' attitude change is to use pre- and
post-tests. The pre-test is given to the students
at the beginning of the course and the
post-test at the end. However, attitude tests
should be completed by students without their
names given. Besides, the issues of validity
and reliability of the tests should be given
Behaviour: Behaviour relates to culture and
knowledge. "Culture -- the shared knowledge
of a given social group -- is realised in part
through behavioural norms and conventions"
(p.141) [10]. Behaviour, however, does not
limit to politeness, etiquette and nice social
behaviour that people of a culture are aware
of or want from a foreigner, but includes
appropriate behavioural response. Behaviour
is related to "social interaction", both verbal
and non-verbal.
This paper discusses the concept of culture and
its relationship to language, the importance of cultural
awareness and understanding, and guidelines for how
to incorporate them into English language instruction.
Assessing cultural learning is also briefly explored.
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